The Grandchildren Fallacy

It’s becoming fashionable to talk about “global warming” and “climate change” in terms of “do it for the grandchildren”, in the sense of getting things in order now (i.e. long before anything bad has happened to the Earth’s climate) so that the grandchildren will be safe from whatever bad things “global warming” will bring (floods, droughts, hot, cold, rain, hail, the works).

(Why has this become fashionable? Here’s why)

The concept creeps in into a recent speech by Norwegian author Jostein Gaardner, talking about global warming at a literary festival as reported by Andy Revkin:

An important basis for all ethics has been The Golden Rule or the Principle of Reciprocity: you shall do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But the golden rule can no longer just have a horizontal dimension – in other words a “we” and “the others.” We must realize that the Principle of Reciprocity also has a vertical dimension: you shall do to the next generation what you wished the previous generation had done to you.

The risk of falling into hubris by following the above, is almost a certainty.

The proposition “you shall do to the next generation what you wished the previous generation had done to you” is simply not supported by historical evidence. Does anybody believe that the society of 1890 was similar to the society of 1865 (35 years earlier, “one generation”)? Were the needs is 1950 similar in any way to those in 1915?

I can add a personal dimension to this. As luck has it, I am 35 years older than my son; my father is 35 years older than me; my paternal grandfather was 36 years older than my father (who knows, the pattern might have gone back further, but I do not think many birth records survived the 1908 Messina quake).

Of this I can be quite sure: whatever was in the minds of my father in 1975, it would have been hardly of any help to us in 2010. In fact, they had to face an energy crisis, with economies in ruins and high unemployment. But inflation was high too, and after another Oil Shock in 1979 somehow they all forgot to develop “clean” energy sources.

Did my father have any clue, could he have imagined our society as it is and with what level of confidence in order to do something useful for me and us all? Had he done something of relevance for 1975, say, bring the inflation down, or achieve energy independence, was that related at all to what he wished my grandfather had done in 1940, and would it have been of relevance for 2010? Say, would my grandfather or my father ever have guessed the troubles with lithium, and the importance a new discovery would have had this week?

Apart from the usual stuff that is, a world free of nuclear weapons, with no povery, the end of malnutrition and child and maternal deaths, etc etc (that’s the equivalent of motherhood and apple pie)…

Consider the world of 2045 now: can I expect it to be similar to mine? To what extent? What exactly am I presumed to be doing that would be relevant to my son when he will be in his forties, and how could I know? Worse: what can I ever think of the world of 2080, when my grandchildren (if I will ever have any) will be in their 40s?

Overall, in face of absolute ignorance, it does sound like the most sensible thing to do is to solve today’s problems, not the children’s or the grandchildren’s. After all…what is the “reciprocity” in something done across time, as there is nothing next generation can do for us now? The bare minimum we can do for them, if we really want to do something for them, is to stay alive enough until they’re not depending on us any longer. Everything else is as good a guess as any, and as bad.